Podcast duo talks out issues raised by Castile killing

Andre Koen, left, and Brian Jost, right, sit in Jost’s basement studio in St. Anthony and prepare to record the eighth episode of their podcast, “Armchair Activist,” the first episode since the presidential election and the announcement that St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez is facing charges in the fatal shoot of Philando Castile.

Taking a break from the basement, the two men move upstairs and talk about how race may or may not come up in conversation at their respective Thanksgiving meals.

‘Armchair Activist’ comes straight out of a St. Anthony basement

The fatal police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile have led many Minnesotans to protest, and at least two, to podcast.

Andre Koen of Mounds View and Brian Jost of St. Anthony Village got the ball rolling on their new podcast, “Armchair Activist,” in October and have since put out eight episodes with more on the way — all digging into race, diversity, cross-cultural competency and community-police relations.

Podcasting, an audio medium that has been on the rise, spiking especially in recent years with the success of “Serial,” a podcast produced by the creators of the radio show “This American Life,” has sometimes been described as downloadable radio — it’s not live broadcasting, but can be listened to on demand once a show is made available to download.

“Armchair Activist” has been downloaded more than 1,800 times as of Nov. 23. 


Sensing tensions

Jost, 41, says he was inspired to produce the program after sensing racial and social tensions in his own community of St. Anthony.

It was a St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who fatally shot Castile during a July 6 traffic stop in the nearby suburb of Falcon Heights, which contracts for police services from the St. Anthony Police Department. 

“I felt a need to be involved in some way, though I wasn’t sure what that way should be,” says Jost, who is white.

It was at that point that he reached out to Koen, who he first met this past spring during a diversity training session that Koen conducted at Jost’s workplace, NAMI Minnesota, part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Being an African American man and a diversity advocate, Jost thought talking to Koen, 46, would be a good place to start.

“Something in his presentation clicked for me,” Jost says, noting that through the training event, he’d learned something new: “How I have been part of the problem.”

Koen consults with businesses and organizations on diversity, equity and inclusion. He also teaches courses on the same topics at a few area colleges, including Bethel University in Arden Hills.

The two men started meeting together to process the incidents that happened essentially in their backyard. According to Koen, in the time since they’ve been meeting and sharing thoughts, the two have learned from each other.

“Brian was trying to process everything and was reaching out to people who could help him do that,” Koen says. “It sounds cheesy, but we really became brothers in talking through these situations.”

Koen says they wanted to continue their conversations, and also do something actionable and tangible. The two, both with previous interest in podcasting, decided to record their conversations and put them out to the world.

“Now we’re trying to help make people think critically,” Koen says. “But instead of trying to tell other people what they should be doing, we thought we should talk about our journeys in dealing with these things in the world.”


‘Things in the world’

Police shootings of unarmed black men — or in Castile’s case, armed but with a license to carry — have led to dozens of local protests, marches, lengthy investigations and ongoing, sometimes polarizing, conversations regarding racial bias in policing. 


Multiple community groups and organizations have been formed in the name of social justice, pressing for police reform to level the playing field for people of color, who, according to those protesting, are often the victims of injustice during police interactions. Other groups formed to support police officers.


This activity has not remained local, as these two recent Minnesota incidents have played into a larger narrative across the nation.

But locally, in the wake of Castile’s death, while many area residents have participated in vigils, rallies and protests, Koen and Jost set their sights on a form of communication, their podcast, that could reach anyone with a mobile device and an Internet connection — both their neighbors and beyond.

The two men, each married with young children, know making it to all the protests and relevant city council meetings might not always be possible for them and others like them, though they encourage listeners, telling them “it’s an ongoing battle.”

Each admittedly brings a different perspective and experience to the podcast. 

Koen has dedicated his time and energy to encourage healthy conversations on race, has experienced racism himself and has figured out ways to maneuver through the world — though he says he’s constantly working through it. 

Jost, on the other hand, says on the podcast that he hasn’t had to think very deeply about racism in the past, noting that as a privilege of being white, racism doesn’t so much intrude on the lives of people like him. 


Basement meetings 

They say sometimes it’s better to put some time between events and recorded conversations about those events, such as the presidential election and the Nov. 16 announcement of Yanez’s charges of second degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm. 

Originally planning to meet and record in the basement of Jost’s home on a weekly basis, the two men abandoned that rigid schedule for more here-and-there get-togethers.

With a background in audio engineering, Jost converted an annex of his basement into their studio, set up with several microphones and other audio recording equipment. 

And it’s not only their voices that appear in the episodes. 

“Andre and I have been able to include the voices of others,” Jost says, listing guests such as Castile’s friend and activist John Thompson, attorney Kristine C. Lizdas and St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson.

According to Jost, the podcast he and Koen create in his basement has been downloaded in several countries now.   

“Our plan is to keep going,” Koen says. “We never really set out to do anything but document our journey together, talking about how to become more active in the world. But I think the world keeps presenting us with opportunities to talk about how to process, develop skills, and be helpful — all with the hope that listeners will be inspired by the discoveries we’re making through this podcast.”


Black and white

Koen notes the fact that he’s black and his co-host is white “definitely benefits the podcast.”

“Our worldviews are supplemental to each other, but they come from places that are very different,” Koen says. “We really get to talk about how we see the world in some profound ways in our discussions.”

He uses as an example a discussion he had with Jost about his interactions with the police versus Jost’s interactions with police. He says the way Jost chooses to interact with law enforcement “is different than the way I have to interact with police.”

In episode 2, Koen explains that he does have “some advantages that some other folks don’t.”

“There have been plenty of times that I’ve not had bad experiences with the police,” Koen says, but he goes on to explain that he has had to develop skills to become “culturally fluent,” meaning he “can operate between a number of different cultures, and speak in a language and in a cadence that sets people at ease.” 

For example, on a number of occasions he’s been pulled over, he’s produced his business card with his license simultaneously.

“That is a clue to the officer that not only am I an upstanding citizen, but that I’m employed,” Koen explains. “There are these little things that I can use to navigate through these systems. ... But why should I have had to learn those skills and what about those people who don’t have those skills?”


Who’s it for?

“To be quite honest, we were focusing on reaching out to local folks,” Koen says, noting the tension in the communities the two men live. “To be frank about the demographics, we were looking at moderate, middle-class white folks who haven’t been engaged.”

Jost adds that if it weren’t for where they live, “Armchair Activist” might not have come to be. 

“The podcast is a direct result of community members coming together and trying to find ways to reach others, to challenge others to think differently, to identify better ways of living with one another,” Jost explains.

But with downloads mapping in from all over the place, he says their podcast is stretching further than originally expected. 

“We just want to reach people who know that change is needed, but who may not know what to do with that awareness,” Jost says. “We want to bridge the gap between awakening to an issue and taking action in support of a movement,” he adds, acknowledging that listeners are “all in different places,” with “different journeys.”  

“Yet here we all are, right now, in this big messy world together, like it or not,” he continues. “We need to listen to each other and learn from one another. We can’t be separate anymore.”


For more information on Armchair Activist and its co-hosts, visit www.armchairactivistpodcast.com. Episodes can be downloaded for free where podcasts are found, including the iOS Podcasts app.


Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.


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